To do or not to do

To do or not to do

Alan West’s cat turns out to be a student of philosopher, Donald Rumsfeld…

When it comes to life’s “to do or not to do” questions, a kind of Rumsfeldian logic can be applied –

There are many things that we can do and therefore do do, quite profitably. There are those things that we can do and yet elect not to do. There are those things that we can’t do and are quite content not to do. Finally, there are those things that we clearly can’t do, yet persist with nevertheless.

The degree of discretion available is also important. There are subtle differences between can’t, don’t and won’t do, not forgetting the should or must dos (or shouldn’t or mustn’t dos) that are done (or not done) with an element of obligation about them.

I’m not talking here about the great Rumsfeldian moral imperatives of our time – as in, “We can invade Iraq, therefore we shall invade Iraq” – but the kind of personal choices and acceptances that we make a million times in our lives.

My excuse for not doing any sport that involves hitting a small object with another small object (as in golf, tennis, snooker) is my cross-laterality. It’s a minor disability really, a sort of mechanical dyslexia but being left-eyed and right handed means that the object being struck is never quite in the same place as the object you are hoping to strike it with. In my hands, a tennis racquet fails to produce that perfectly tuned thwack (as another ace is hit cleanly down the line) but more of a discordant thwang as the ball spins off into the undergrowth.

This kind of can’t do – that arises out of some sort of incapacity for want of a better word– is OK as far as it goes but it’s not always possible to opt out; one just learns to manage or disregard the consequences. Presented with a hammer and nail, sometimes I have felt that if I aimed for my thumb, I might actually hit the nail. Cross-laterality isn’t an elective thing and the clumsiness that goes with it is just part of my repertoire: the placing of hand next to wine glass so as to pick it up rather than knock it over, for instance. As a younger man, I lost count of the number of glasses of wine spilt across the dinner table on a first date. When I mastered the art of nonchalantly diverting the stream to one side of the table where it could trickle harmlessly to the floor (and developed a taste for white wine rather than red), I became luckier in love.

Long ago I learnt to avoid most of my can’t dos and to manage the consequences of the unavoidable must dos. I wish this were a universally accepted principle. Most TV programming today seems to be predicated on finding people who can’t do things and then encouraging them to humiliate themselves by doing those things in front of the largest possible audience. Even in real life or in the supermarket, one witnesses things that people clearly can’t do (like singing or whistling in tune for example) but persist in doing nevertheless. These people are either mad or inconsiderate. The universal principle that should be applied in all cases of ‘can’t do’ is, “If at first you don’t succeed, give up. Find something you are good at.”

So much for the can’t dos. What about the don’t or won’t dos? This is much more hazardous territory.

We all have our don’t dos because somebody else in the tribe – family, firm or club – is much better at it than we are. It’s a matter of efficiency. Though it can sound like a sensible division of labour (and you wouldn’t want to pay your accountant or lawyer £170 an hour to do his/her own typing) it can be self-fulfilling. Seen from the perspective of the overworked doer – the boss, the teacher, parent or partner – your apprentices will never develop the necessary skills if you allow them to exercise that particular get out clause. Clearly, just because you can do something, and even do it well, it doesn’t mean you should do it in all cases.

This brings us, finally, to the “won’t dos”. I could for instance (if it weren’t for my affliction) join a golf club, or the Conservative Party or read the Daily Mail. It’s just that I would rather not. Though the noblest won’t dos are driven by conscience or high principle, I’m sure that many of our won’t dos are determined by ingrained social, cultural or class attitudes. When I was a business studies student, I recall my father being horrified when I enrolled in a touch typing class. Using a typewriter (but also read cooking, cleaning, looking after children) was a woman’s role. He would no sooner do those things than iron his own shirt.

My friend and co blogger, a man who has learned to speak advanced French in his sixties, will still look mildly panicked when it is suggested that he undertakes anything remotely technical in nature, particularly to do with computers. Is this technophobia borne of some kind of physical or mental incapacity or merely a hangover from the days when we had secretaries to do that sort of thing for us?

I suspect that there is something very basic going on here. Like cats, we learn things that we want to learn and disregard those things that we perceive to be without advantage. Our cat, even at the fine age of seventeen, can learn any new trick that leads him to food or comfort. He can open any door just by sitting next to it. And the same can be said of the fridge, a fire to be lit, bowl to be filled or armchair to be occupied (lap to be sat upon). He can apply the same logic to almost any new challenge. Despite this innate understanding of cause and effect, there are things he simply does not get. For many years, we have reasoned with him, even on occasions shouted at him, but will he stop sharpening his claws on the furniture? Certainly not. Where’s the advantage in that?

In the end, there are things we just do. If Harry could speak (he wouldn’t) he might say,

“To do or not to do. Where is the question?”

3 comments on “To do or not to do
  1. Nick Lloyd says:

    I notice from the picture that Alan West has solved the problem of “the elephant in the room” by putting the elephant outside the room.

  2. Ellen Lingwood says:

    Alan West’s cat is certainly wiser than most. Cats I mean, but possibly human beings as well. It never ceases to amaze me how many “can’t dos” persist in “doing”. Perhaps it has something to do with the education system. Failure is practically a thing of the past. “Working towards” never existed in the schools of the 60s and 70s. “Can do” if you try is almost a mantra of today’s schools. Universal opportunity is clearly a good thing. A child needs to have as wide a range of skills and activities as possible in order to best decide which courses and ultimately career path to take. However how can a child know what he “can do” best if he doesn’t learn what he “can’t do”. Of course most children aren’t fools and they know how they compare with others but they also need to learn about failure. In my experience they are more likely to stop doing an activity that they “can do” because they find it “boring”; it doesn’t bring them instant success, or they don’t like the teacher than because they actually “can’t do” it.

    Extra help is at least in theory available for less able children, or for those with special needs. What about extra help for such children to improve the areas which they can achieve in?

    Everybody will, at some point, fail at something be it job or relationship related. Equally if one never fails anything, one’s first failure as a young adult can be quite damaging. If it happens to be at something that one actually “can do” but simply need to work harder at, then it can divert an able youngster wrongly from his or her chosen career path.

    On the other hand a young adult who is convinced that he or she is bound for a star studded career as an actor or pop musician, when actually they haven’t a chance in hell, a fact of which they are completely oblivious but which they should have learned long ago, may waste valuable time when they could have been training to do something that they actually “can do”

    Perhaps a change in the education system might preserve us from those cringingly embarrassing “talent” progammes to which Alan West alludes. On the other hand it would deprive many a grey hare blogger of satisfying opportunities for a good rant!

  3. Jack Humphrys says:

    This to do or not to do conundrum is nothing new. There was a piece of philosophical grafitti on the wall of the male student lavatories at the London School of Economics (it was there as recently as 1973) that read,

    “To do is to be” – Descartes

    “To be is to do” – Jean Paul Sartre

    Somebody had scrawled along the bottom,

    “Do be do be do” – Sinatra

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